Historical Underwear and the Surprising Thing Used to Clean It (Hint: It Starts with a U)

[From the archives] Okay, so we’ve had a lot of posts lately that have been on the serious side (fire, plague, syphilis, under-paying jobs), so for a change of pace, I thought I’d write about something a little more fun.

Underwear!

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15th century. Yes, really. (University of Innsbruck)

What’s not to like? Everyone knows that the best part of costume dramas in the historically accurate underwear (that can’t just be me). Fans of historical anything will already be so familiar with corsets that you might feel like you know your way in and out of one, but what about the rest?

Underwear is a surprisingly tricky subject. You’ll often hear that people just didn’t wear any, but that wasn’t always the case. Charles II wore one of the world’s first versions of silk boxer shorts to bed–would you expect anything less?–and Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, is noted to have worn “drawers.” While it’s true that seventeenth century undergarments were a long way off from Victoria’s Secret, they were very common and almost always the cleanest thing a person wore. It was extremely difficult to clean many finer items of clothing, and people depended in part on frequent changes of undergarments such as shifts to preserve the more expensive outer layers.

As Lucy Worsley writes in If Walls Could Talk:

“In the Tudor or Stuart concept of hygiene, clean underwear played an important part. The wearing of clean linen next to the skin was considered essential in the ‘dirty’ centuries. People thought it was dangerous to immerse their bodies in water but perfectly safe to use linen to absorb the body’s juices, and then to wash the linen regularly. In fact, a show of brilliant white linen at the collar and cuffs was important to publicise the cleanliness of your body–and. by implication, the purity of your mind.”

The brighter the linen, the cleaner the mind. So how did they maintain the extraordinarily bright whites seen in portraits (apart from being kind to their painters)?

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15th Century tie-on underwear, not unlike something you could find at Ann Summers. Probably used for menstruation. (University of Innsbruck)

Urine!

That’s right, the second U of the day was used a stain remover right up until the twentieth century. Garments were scrubbed with a soap made of lye before the dirt was beaten out of them and they were hung in the sun to dry, ideally over sweet-smelling rosemary or hawthorn bushes. But for tough stains, you couldn’t beat urine. Satisfying as it might be, surely just peeing on one’s employer’s clothes would be too easy. So how was it done?

“Lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.”
-Hannah Woolley, 1670

As you can see, sometimes it took quite a lot to do the job. Housemaids would even reserve urine from the house’s chamber pots for this specific purpose. Effective as it must have been, I can’t help but wonder how much lye and rosemary it took to neutralize the smell.

If that didn’t work, there was always perfume.

Perfume, pomanders, and scented washballs, waters, and other cosmetics were extremely popular and available in every scent imaginable from rosewater to civet (a musk from a wild cat). Although Worsley warns us about the perceived dangers of bathing, Sally Pointer assures us that both sexes bathed in scented flower waters regularly, so the situation was probably not as dire as you might imagine.

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Unidentified tailor, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1570. Notice the pristine white ruffles under his doublet. Someone knows the secret to keeping their whites whiter.

For a bonus U: Giovanni Battista Moroni’s unidentified tailor (1570). This has very little to do with underwear (see caption), but I found him when looking for photos for you and thought you’d earned something pretty to look at after that syphilis post.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty

Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1670).

Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.

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Maybe She’s Born With It (Maybe It’s Lead!): Powder and Patch in the 17th Century

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Barbara Palmer, The Duchess of Cleveland. John Michael Wright, 1670.

So many seventeenth-century portraits feature women with smooth, perfectly white complexions. The paint used in the portraits would have been very similar to the makeup used by the subjects, both being comprised chiefly of white lead. By the Restoration, cosmetics were widely available and used across the social spectrum. In a time when freckles were undesirable and so many faces were marred with smallpox scars, demand for complexion correctives was high, and white lead made its first comeback as a cosmetic since the end of the Roman Empire.

Ceruse was made of lead carbonite and could be combined with lemon juice or vinegar. It was bought as a powder and mixed into a paste with water or egg whites and applied with a damp cloth to whiten the face, neck, and chest. It clung well to the skin and didn’t have to be applied too heavily to produce an even, matte result. It could be set with a mask of egg whites to varnish the skin or powders of starch or ground alabaster.

While it could create the illusion of perfection for a time, ceruse was not without its failings. The egg whites dried quickly on the skin, and they would have created an uncomfortably tight mask that would wrinkle and crack with any facial movement at all, so smiling and talking were out. Over the course of a day, it could even turn grey, necessitating touch-ups with alabaster powder to disguise the changing tone. Ceruse was also found to have a depilatory effect on the eyebrows and hairline, which could be seen as an advantage (or disadvantage, if false mouse-skin eyebrows don’t appeal to you) and could partially explain the artificially high hairlines that appeared in portraits throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Still, it was preferable to the alternative, a combination of borax and sulphur, which created a pale powder that was very drying as well as slightly yellow; not very compatible with the fashionable pink and white complexion of the time.

Ceruse was also extremely poisonous. The most sought-after ceruse came from Venice, seen by many as the center of the fashionable world, which was the most expensive and contained the highest concentration of lead. In 1651, Noah Biggs warned against the use of lead in lab equipment and near any water supplies in The Vanity of the Craft of Physic, and the Royal Society noted that people involved in the manufacture of white lead suffered from cramps and blindness by 1661. Although lead was known to cause madness, it continued to be used in cosmetics, medicine, and other household products.

The first person known to die from lead poisoning caused by makeup was Lady Coventry in 1760.

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Les Mouches Sous Louis XIV. Octave Uzanne, 1902.

Patches

Patches reached their height of popularity in the seventeenth century. Lady Castlemaine advised ladies to wear them daily, except when in mourning. They could be made of taffeta or other thin, black fabrics, and even red Spanish Leather. They came in all shapes and were affixed to the face with gum to disguise blemishes or pockmarks, or to provide a “mark of Venus.”

They were called different things depending on their position on the face. A patch beside the mouth was called a “kiss.” At the middle of the cheek, it was a “finery,” a “boldness” beside the nostril, and a “passion” at the corner of the eye. During the 1650s, it became fashionable to wear patches shaped as coaches complete with galloping horses, although it’s difficult to imagine how large a patch would have had to be to resemble anything of the kind.

If a coach and six was not to the wearer’s taste, the Exchanges were restocked daily with a plethora of shapes. From The Gentlewoman’s Companion (Hannah Woolley, 1675):

“By the impertinent pains of this curious Facespoiling-mender, the Exchanges (for now we have three great Arsenals of choice Vanities) are furnished with a daily supply and variety of Beautyspots … and these Patches are cut out into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts, and Fishes of all sorts, so that their Faces may be properly termed a Landscape of living Creatures. The vanity and pride of these Gentlewomen hath in a manner abstracted Noah’s Ark, and exprest a Compendium of the Creation in their Front and Cheeks. Add to this the gallantry of their Garb, with all the Ornamental appurtances which rackt Innvention can discover, and then you will say … That she was defective in nothing but a vertueus mind.”

Despite this scathing attack on the virtue of London’s patch-wearing populace, patches continued to be common throughout the eighteenth century. During the reign of Queen Anne, they were even worn to indicate political allegiances by wearing them on different sides of the face.

As you might have noticed from some of my posts, I have a particular interest in cosmetics throughout history. I use rather a lot of my research on the subject in my books. In Tyburn, heroine Sally Green is a prostitute and sometime actress, and she uses ceruse, rouge, patches, and an early kind of eyeliner, while silently judging those who use blue crayons to draw veins on their skin (because that’s just weird). My publisher is running a promotion of Tyburn this month, so if you’re curious about my fiction series, The Southwark Saga, you can download your copy through one of the links below.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Picard, Liza. Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s 
Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty
Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675)

Tyburn can be downloaded free until October 20th through the following links:
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An earlier version of this post appeared on the brilliant 17th century history blog, Hoydens & Firebrands.